The Ryokan Experience

When in Kyoto, one must ryokan.

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After our village experience in the mountains, Simon and I decided to do a 180 and clean up our act with some much needed pampering at a ryokan. A must do R&R on any traveller’s bucket list in Kyoto, a ryokan is a traditional style inn with sliding doors and tatami mats. Guests are provided a traditional yukata robe (a cotton type of kimono) and tabi socks (a two toed sock) to wear since shoes are checked in at the lobby. Afternoon tea and kaiseki (a traditional multi-course meal) is served in the guest room where you must sit in perfect lotus pose at a low table. At the end of the night, futons are unrolled onto the tatami mats for a good night’s rest. In short, it was a more expensive version of our gassho stay just the night before.

With our muddy shoes, dusty backpacks, and wrinkly traveller’s outfits, we felt a bit like Pigpen when we set foot onto the pristine lobby of the ryokan. Despite our haggard appearance, the staff gave us a warm welcome as we were ushered to our room by a sweet old lady, who would be our nakai (a waitress at a ryokan) for the duration of our stay. She spoke not a word of English, so Simon and I just nodded and smiled like we understood her.

We unloaded our bags onto the floor but quickly took a seat at the table in the center of our room to prepare for afternoon tea. In the nakai came, ever so politely knocking on our sliding door before she entered. She presented a tray with two handcrafted small mugs filled with frothy green matcha tea, and a plate of warabimochi. We waited until she left the room and slid the door close before we hungrily scarfed down the the powdery soft dessert and washed it all down with the earthy cup of tea. It was unlike anything we ever had before, and it set the tone for the palatable kaiseki soon to come.

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After washing away our Pigpen exterior, we put on the yukata, tried our best to properly tie the obi belt, and then waited for the kaiseki to begin. Each course was served with utmost grace and care, with the delicate dishes artistically arranged on the smallest of plates like a work of art too beautiful to eat. The nakai would explain to us what was in each dish, pointing it out on the artful scroll menu that we couldn’t read. She would leave the room to allow us time to eat, only to return some ten minutes later to serve the next course and clear our empty plates. In all, the dinner took an hour and a half to complete, giving us ample time to appreciate the creative presentation and to savor the intricate taste and texture of the dishes. Although each dish was small, by the end of the kaiseki, Simon and I definitely felt the strain of our obi belts tied tightly around our bulging tummies.

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